The Promise of Virtual Reality

By Briggs, John C. | The Futurist, September 1996 | Go to article overview
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The Promise of Virtual Reality

Briggs, John C., The Futurist

We are moving toward a future where doctors can practice surgery on "virtual" patients and marketers can sell "virtual" products. Here's a wide-ranging survey of future possibilities by a virtual-reality expert.

Virtual reality may be one of the most important technologies in our future, producing a great leap forward in many fields. While most people now focus on VR's use in entertainment areas, its real impacts will be in the arts, business, communication, design, education, engineering, medicine, and many other fields.

Due to the importance of this emerging technology, I would like to dispel some misinformation about it and suggest some important applications it will have in the future. But first, let's get clear about what virtuality is.

Defining Virtual Reality

Virtual reality can be defined as a three-dimensional, computer-generated simulation in which one can navigate around, interact with, and be immersed in another environment. In this sense, "virtual" is derived from the concept of "virtual memory" in a computer, which acts "as if" it is actual memory. Virtual reality provides a reality that mimics our everyday one.

Since human beings are preliminary visual animals, we respond much better to spatial, three-dimensional images than we do to flat, two-dimensional text and sketches. With three-dimensional images like those produced in virtual reality, we are better able to see patterns, relationships, and trends. Virtual reality goes beyond mere static images to ones that we can navigate through and interact with in real time. We can look at things from any perspective. Virtual reality is also immersive - it draws you into the visualization.

Virtual reality is not just a set of devices, but a medium for expression and communication. Virtual reality is a means to create, experience, and share a computer-generated world as realistic or as fanciful as you would like. Head-mounted displays, data gloves, and other devices are only tools to help us experience this parallel world.

Other names for the concept of virtual reality includes "artificial reality," "augmented reality," and "telepresence." However, the term "virtual reality," or "VR," seems to have won out in common parlance. The term hooks us with the excitement of creating and experiencing different realities.

There is also an ongoing debate over exactly what virtual reality is and what it is not. Most observers agree that one necessary characteristic is that you can navigate in a virtual world with some degree of immersion, interactivity, and a speed close to real time.

Hype and Reality

Right now, there is a great deal of hype surrounding virtual reality. The technology's present state of advancement has been overstated. Coverage in numerous magazines and newspaper articles, on TV shows, and even in TV ads suggests that virtual reality is now fully developed. Unfortunately, this is not true.

Present virtual-reality visualizations are often low-quality and cartoonish. The picture we see may be jerky and not respond quickly to our movements. Few systems allow for tactile feedback - a sense of touch. Some people even question the physiological and psychological safety of virtual reality, particularly in entertainment.

However, the future of virtual reality is important and real. We should not abandon the technology because it does not yet fit our expectations. Virtual reality is with us now in a very early and rudimentary form. Its state of development has been likened to the space program in the 1950s or microcomputers in the 1970s. We are just beginning to see the potential of virtual reality.

Faster computers, better software, and new devices to inform our senses are expected to come rapidly onto the scene, improving virtual reality and increasing its utility. Better content and new applications will rapidly emerge in the years ahead. Virtual reality will come to us over the Internet, reducing the need for complicated and expensive stand-alone equipment.

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